Eastern’s Blue and White Marching Band leads the Homecoming Parade through the Hill, Oct. 8. Photo: Christine Mullins

Christine Mullins knows fall has arrived when she hears the sounds of the Eastern High School Blue and White Marching Machine practicing on the streets outside her Hill home.

“It’s hard to explain, but I get emotional every time I hear them and always have to drop everything and come outside to watch,” Mullins said.  “I hope they know how much we appreciate them!”

Bandmembers might have a sense of the scale of that appreciation now. On the heels of a Washington Post story published Oct. 8, during Eastern’s Homecoming Weekend, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF) received more than $150,000 in donations earmarked for Eastern’s marching band.

Band Director James Perry said he was overwhelmed by the support. “I feel extremely blessed. I’m ecstatic,” said Perry. “It’s all about the kids, it benefits them. Whatever can help put a smile on their face, I’m just overwhelmed with the level of support that we’ve received.”

Telling Their Story
Lizzie Johnson is the Washington Post reporter who wrote the story. She moved to the Hill in 2021 from San Francisco. One of the first things she noticed about her new neighborhood was the band music that started outside every afternoon around 4 p.m. Investigating, she discovered Eastern’s marching band at practice. She started watching them as they passed.

“They’re just incredible … they just ripple with energy and passion and are so good,” she said. “And I just kept thinking about how unique it was that the neighborhood loves the band and the band loves parading through the neighborhood and how sweet that was.”

She said an important part of the story was how the band had done so much with so little. She discovered that the program only gets $6,000 a year from the school system—enough to fund about two bus rides to competitions. In trying to figure out their funding situation she discovered the CHCF, which had given the band a grant in 2019 and started the Campaign for Pride to raise another $90,000 to replace the band’s uniforms. That campaign moved to the margins as CHCF turned to meeting needs generated by the COVID pandemic.

But Johnson’s article put it front and center when she put a link to the Campaign for Pride in the story, not expecting this kind of response.

“I knew they were special just because I’ve been lucky enough to hear them so often, but it was crazy to see how that story resonated with so many people,” she said of the response it generated. “I just could never have imagined.”

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
CHCF President Nicky Cymrot was gardening when her phone started pinging wildly, alerting her to donations. Amazed at the sudden cascade, she sent out queries and found out about the article when a foundation member sent her the link.

Cymrot said the outpouring of support was incredible. “It’s all down to Lizzie Johnson,” she said. “This was beyond belief for me, the power of words and the power of the story.”

CHCF Treasurer Stephen Daniels said about half the donations came from residents in the District, Maryland or Virginia, but donations came in from almost all the other states. International contributions came in from as far away as Australia.

Cymrot said the foundation will help the band create a plan and budget for the money, helping with distribution and disbursement of the funds.

Founded in 1989, CHCF is a community organization that is usually funded entirely by contributions from Capitol Hill residents and businesses. The foundation uses funds to support activities, projects and groups that enrich the lives of residents and celebrate the history and beauty of the community. Since its founding, CHCF has donated more than $10 million to a broad range of local organizations and projects, giving money to schools, art festivals, non-profit organizations and individual teachers.

Capable of responding to needs in real time, CHCF has stepped in to help after emergencies, channeling community support to those most affected by the 2007 fire at Eastern Market and the fire that destroyed Frager’s Hardware in 2013, and funding grants to organizations supporting those impacted by the pandemic in 2020.

CHCF has given nearly $95,000 to Eastern High School over the past 11 years, said Daniels. A majority of those funds have gone to support the band, including a 2019 Arnold F. Keller Grant intended to repair instruments, but other grants have helped expand the International Baccalaureate program, fund the e-sports team and pay for theater equipment, educational programming and field trips.

Eastern High School celebrates the 100th anniversary of the school building in 2023. CHCF contributed $25,000 to Story of Our Schools (SOOS) which will help students celebrate the anniversary by creating a museum-quality exhibit that tells the school’s story, including a timeline and artifacts. The full cost of the project is $85,000, so Eastern still needs to fundraise to cover the remaining costs of the exhibit, which will be a permanent installation at the school.

About Eastern Band
Eastern’s Blue and White Marching Machine is grateful for the support of CHCF, Perry said. “They’ve always been a great supporter of the [band],” said band director Perry. “And when this story came out they really jumped on the ball and kept us informed of what we needed to do and how we needed to move—so we’re forever grateful for the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.”

The band means a lot to the community, the school and its students, Perry said. “This is my family away from my family,” he said. “We share a bond amongst one another that is unmatched. The things that we discuss here go beyond just music; we talk about mental health, we talk about team building skills, academics,” Perry said. “We’re just really trying to approach this and ensure that we create a fostering environment for these students.”

In a testament to the band’s impact, more than 90 percent of its graduating members go on to college.

Perry said the funds will open up endless opportunities for the marching band and the students. They can finally get new uniforms and replace broken instruments, some of which are more than twenty years old—far older than the students playing them.

The band is one of the most requested in the city, performing from August to July 4th, sometimes four times a week, including at the White House, the National Football Hall of Fame parade, the Teach for America convention, the opening of the Southwest Waterfront Wharf, Washington Capitals Championship Parade and the Hill’s own Fourth of July parade.

It’s a lot to take on, Perry said, getting students to the various performances and making sure they have uniforms and instruments in good order —and making sure they eat. Running a band on that scale is costly. With 65 students and support staff, they need two buses for transport, so it costs $2,800-$3,000 to transport the band just within the District.

Perry also sold his car in 2019 to help with some of the costs. “The money had to come from somewhere,” he said.

A gofundme campaign was started to help him replace the vehicle. He said the show of support blew him away. It never occurred to him that someone would start a campaign (https://www.gofundme.com/f/eastern-highs-band-director-mr-perry-car-fund) to help get him another. “I’m extremely humbled and I’m extremely appreciative that people thought enough of me to even go that far,” he said.

In addition to grants from organizations like CHCF, the band earns money through paid bookings and fundraising, selling popcorn and a lot of donuts.

“I have been up early some mornings loading Krispy cremes into U-Hauls,” Perry said, laughing.

The Post story set off a cavalcade of donations, but also an influx of performance requests. “I can’t even keep up with the amount of requests that are coming in,” Perry said. An alumni stepped in to function as his administrative aide, helping to respond to the inquiries.

Johnson said while she is happy with the response to the story, the real credit goes to the kids in the band. “I think my job is to hold a mirror up to things so people can see them better,” Johnson said. “I just showed what the band was already doing, and it was those kids being so incredible and so passionate about what they did that struck people — I was just the mirror to help them see it.”

Donate to the Story of Our Schools 100th Anniversary of Eastern High here: https://www.storyofourschools.org/donate/  You can still donate to the Campaign for Pride, for the school’s marching band, at www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.com/eastern-high-school